Review Archive


This Just In...News From The Agony Column


06-06-08: Richard Liebmann-Smith Rides With 'The James Boys' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report :

Wild West Versus Wild East

I've got a bike, you can ride it if you like.

Over on the Loren Coleman's highly recommended Fortean website Cryptomundo, you'll occasionally find him talking about "The Name Game." That's his description for that whole farrago of coincidences where a single name will pop up again and again. Coleman really has taken this down to a science, in the manner of the best scientists. He accumulates data and presents it in a straightforward manner. These "name game" coincidences may not suggest much beyond our ability to perceive the same pattern again and again. As Cory Doctorow said in our interview, once you read 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,' the chances are that youre going to start seeing the number 42 crop up everywhere. "Name games" tell us a lot more about our selves than they do about the world around us.

Just the same, name games are hard to ignore. And in his introduction to 'The James Boys' (Random House ; June 17, 2008 ; $25), Richard Liebmann-Smith admits that he's not the first to play the name game with the two sets of James brothers. "As Stanford historian Otis Pease once remarked, virtually the entire story of nineteenth-century America is encompassed in the saga of the James Brothers – William and Henry in the East, Frank and Jesse in the West." But Leibmann-Smith, co-creator The Tick animated television series is the first writer to imagine that all four were indeed related – a single group of four James Boys – and then to write a novel that twists history and the reader's mind enough to wrap both around that vision of America. The result is a fascinating and compelling revision of history. Liebmann-Smith effortlessly pulls the threads of story out of the whole cloth of history.

The touchstone year is 1876. In the reality we're supposedly familiar with, that's the year that Frank and Jesse tried to pull off the First National Bank job in Northfield, Minnesota, and the year that Henry and William came into the orbit of one Elena Hite, who is likely the role model for Daisy Miller. 'The James Boys' imagines that Henry James is aboard the Missouri Pacific Express when it is stopped and robbed. To his horror, he realizes that the robbers, Frank and Jesse, are two long lost brothers who had disappeared during the Civil War and were presumed dead. With that presumption proved untrue, Henry and William find themselves drawn into a world they'd tried hard to avoid.

Lienmann-Smith writes it all so seamlessly readers might be tempted to look up the real history to see just where he's made his changes – but the story he tells grasps a larger truth with such surety that it doesn't really matter. Of course he brings in everyone's favorite historical character of the era, William Pinkerton, in this novel hotly pursuing not just two but all four James brothers. That's not all that surprising; we distrust intellectuals and creative types almost more than bank robbers. With the latter, we clearly understand their goals, which are to take advantage of, not undermine society. Intellectuals, on the other hand, are neither trustworthy nor easily understood. And by virtue of their occupation, they can't help but to undermine society. Jesse or Frank might shoot you. But William or Henry might help you understand yourself, and that's a much more terrifying prospect.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Betsy Burton of King's English : Local Area Networking

Thirty years in the making.

I've been amazingly fortunate in my bookseller interviews; by pure chance and the kindness of my interviewees, I've managed to stumble across a number of fascinating guests with great stories about bookselling. To tell the truth, I never expected this to work out so well.

After all, how would I ever have come across Betsy Burton, of King's English Books in Salt Lake City, Utah? I've never been to Utah, and have no driving urge to go there; well, other than visiting this historic bookstore. King's English has been in business for over thirty years, and, as Betsy Burton explains, it's because of some very smart local area networking, so to speak. Hear her story here and get an idea of why these independent booksellers are so much on the cutting edge of preserving our freedom to read what we want.


06-05-08: The Franchise That Time Never Forgot ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Lou Anders on SF Video


Screaming skull with snake-tongue!

In the future, someone can invent a drinking game whereby you pull down a brew every time you come across a mention of Brian Lumley's 'Necroscope' on this website. Dont drink and drive, dont drink and drive – how are you going to get anywhere? Stay home and read a book instead. I've said it before and some enterprising soul will surely publish yet another version so that I may say it again, that having played the game and having firmly decided to stay at home, you could have a hell of a good time reading the latest handsome trade paperback version of 'Necroscope' (Tom Doherty Associates ; June 10, 2008 ; $14.95) by Brian Lumley. I'll never forget finding the very first American edition, a mass-market paperback, in the racks at a drug store in Marina Del Rey, just up the street from a smorgasbord I loved to have lunch at during the 1980's. Those were the days, as we like to say, when you could still find a good rack of titles in certain drug stores. There was a drug store in Monterey Park that had the UK versions of all of Robert R. McCammon's titles, as well as the original UK mass-market paperbacks of Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood'. The UK McCammon paperbacks in particular just disturbed and scared me. There was something seedy about them, a touch of the forbidden. And the same was true of the Lumley's 'Necroscope'.

Even then, I wasn't a fan of vampire fiction, but I could tell by the screaming skull on the original 'Necroscope' that there was something different. This time around, Tor's putting a blurb from H. R. Giger on the cover, and I have to say, that's pretty appropriate. Lumley's novel isn't your usual vampire fare, but rather a monsterific spy novel with plenty of intrigue, critters and over-the-top horror. The basic deal is that due to a maguffin, Harry Keogh can talk to the dead; ie, he is a "necroscope" (TM). This makes him useful to Britain's E-Branch, the super secret spy agency that keeps an eye out for monsters and the like. Turns out that the dead are all up in arms about the vampires, which are not your usual bloodsucking fashion plates, but leech-like blood-thirsty monster-symbiotes. I always saw many of the scenes in the novel as created by Giger in the movie screen of my mind; Lumley and Giger share a bio-morphic approach to crafting the surreal. Of course, Lumley has his own "evil uncle" style of storytelling, in that his prose voice is always apparent and appalling. You can tell the writer is having one hell of a time with this novel and as a reader it's hard not to go with the flow of blood and other viscous fluids.

Lumley had so much fun that the series has lasted for a number of years, gone on through many printings and has even made the journey from the big press to the small press, where Subterranean crafted some gorgeous illustrated versions (and I believe that there are more to come). Lumley even managed to trademark the title, the better, one would presume, to keep video game developers from totally ripping off his idea and his title. Sure, they might steal the ideas, but at least the title and the series are covered, and I think that's not a bad thing. 'Necroscope' is a great example of the rare Fictional Franchise, and time does not forget these. It brings them back to life, just like the vampires within. From the get-go, I thought that these would make great movies. In fact, in my original review, (have I written about this before?), I said they'd make awesome, big-budget B-movies, a review snip which caused Lumley to write me, wondering why I didn't think they'd make good A-movies. Of course, I'd prefer B-movies, I mean what would you rather watch, Alien or Amistad? I know where my preferences lie!

The rot within ...

This time around, Tor is issuing it as a nicely-priced trade paperback with the original cover art by Bob Eggleton – who doesn't love a screaming skull? – and new interior illustrations and decoration as well, also by Eggleton. I suspect that some of these were originally used in the to-die-for Subterranean Press editions that came out a couple of years ago. Illo-loving book fiends should have opted for those, but if you missed them, here's a way to get some of the mojo at a very cheap price. And even if you did get them, this version would make a fine reading copy. Look, it's 'Necroscope'!!!!! OK, down the hatch, sip, guzzle, name your poison and drink hearty me hearties. Lumley awaits!

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Lou Anders on SF Video : Battle Beyond the Stardust

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report gets in touch with Lou Anders, editor of the incredible Prometheus Books imprint, Pyr. I've been wanting to get back to Lou and talk to him about SF on video and the upcoming Hugo Awards. You know, for all that I loved, and I mean LOVED Neil Gaiman's perfect prose construction 'Stardust', the trailers for the movie left me a little leery, and I never got round to even seeing it. I know, what's the matter with me? I run out to see Neil Marshall's Doomsday (which I really enjoyed), but not Stardust. Well, we sort it all out in this MP3 download; this is your chance to hear one of the great editors of the 21st century. Forward – Fast Forward!


06-04-08: Salman Rushdie Explores with 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Story on Neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang

Literally Fantasy Literature

Fantasy lit.
It's always fun, if slightly embarrassing to find great literature served up right in front of your face. Of course, examples of litrachur are a dime a dozen; but great fantasy dressed up as literature is a rare beast indeed. Imagine my chagrin at coming so lately to the work of Salman Rushdie. With the foofaraw attendant to the release of 'The Satanic Verses' so long ago, I figured he was in the category of "read by so many people I dont need to read him," but let me be the first to say that I was so wrong. Rushdie proves to be one of the premiere fantasists of the 21st century, a writer of remarkable talents and a vision pretty clearly focused on the fantastic and the surreal. If youre looking for a place to start, you might try what Janet Leimeister at Captiola Book Café suggested for me to read, 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' (Penguin Books ; 1990 ; $14). This is a fantasy about the power of literature and importance of storytelling, gorgeously written, fast-paced and entertainingly imagined.

Haroun has a couple more problems than the average teenager in the city of Alifbay. Haroun's father Rashid, the great storyteller, has run dry after his wife took off with an oh-so-serious neighbor. Haroun wakes up one morning soon after to find a genie cutting off Rashid's tap into the Sea of Stories. Snippety-snap, he's off on one quest that leads to another in a reality where works of literature have a life of their own. Rushie's language is always engaging and funny, and the plot moves along at a whirlwind pace. This is a very easy-to-read book with loads of fascinating subtext not far beneath the surface of Rushie's Sea of Stories. Rip-roaring adventure is wrought out of literary metaphors brought to life with the sure hand of a fantasist who knows what he's doing. It's really quite reminiscent of the work of Jasper Fforde; lover's of Thursday Next's adventures will feel totally at home in the sea of stories.

As a fantasy, 'Haroun and the Sea of Stories' is admirably terse and self-contained. Rushdie could be writing for children, but to my mind this is a book for adults of all ages, not children. The story is zippy but the underpinnings – which lie just below a transparent sea of lovely language – are as powerfully entertaining as the silly goings-on above. You start this book, you'll whip through it a trice, then go back to your 'Wizard of Oz', 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Arabian Nights' with a new eye. That's the real treat of this book; read it and with only language, Rushdie will invent the world anew for you.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : NPR Story on Neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang : Welcome to Your Brain

Picture box verbiage.

Today's Agony Column Podcast News Report is a high-quality MP3 of last week's NPR report on neuroscientists Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang and their book 'Welcome to Your Brain'. Thanks to the readers who made this a popular story on NPR. The column lives to see another week, and we have lots more fun down the road. You can find the link to the MP3 here, the link to the NPR website version here. And allow me to once again pitch my First Books For Summer list on NPR's website. Take a look at this list, which brings up titles I've not got round to here (yet) and might hold glimpses of future NPR reports. And then Email that story! Shameless self-promotion is alas, some kind of rite of passage here on the Web-o-Net. One just hopes to get the word out, and let you the readers make the decisions and enjoy the reading.


06-03-08: Terry D'Auray Greets 'The Dawn Patrol' ; Agony Column Podcast News Report : Lyn Roberts of Square Books

Surf Noir Rides Again

Surf noir.

Today, we're featuring Terry D'Auray's peerless review of 'The Dawn Patrol' by Don Winslow. Winslow's an acclaimed writer and certainly one to watch. Terry took a look at his earlier novel, 'The Power of the Dog', which would explain why she was so happy to get 'The Dawn Patrol'. She's not the only one who's impressed with Winslow. Terry tells me that Robert DeNiro and Michael Mann are teaming up to turn Winslow's previous book, 'The Winter of Frankie Machine' into a feature film. But for all the entertainment promised by such a venture, it simply can't match the reading experience. Great mystery and noir fiction is all about language, about the fiction web a writer can weave. And it starts with Terry's outstandingly well-written, spoiler-free review. Catch this wave and see if you want to ride out the whole set. If you're looking for a perfect summer hardcover mystery, your ride has arrived.

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Lyn Roberts of Square Books : Three Stores Are Better Than One

Today's Agony Column Podcast is a conversation with bookseller Lyn Roberts of Square Books, in Oxford Mississippi. She has a fascinatingly different perspective, in fact a dual perspective, because Square Books has three stores on one small square in this southern university town. You can hear our conversation via this MP3 link, and find out what goes where and why. As ever, if youre interested in reading you have to be interested in the state of independent bookselling. Lyn's voice is a great addition to the bookseller interviews, and a wonderful turn in this journey across the US and eventually (phone costs permitting) around the world. You wont be able to read unless you can buy books, and you wont be able to buy books without the work of booksellers like Lyn Roberts. Listen and enjoy! Moreover, if readers would like to nominate their local bookstore for an interview, just email me the details; I'll call 'em up and talk to them and find out why they're selling you books.


06-02-08: A 2008 Interview With Cory Doctorow

Big Changes and Little Brother

Check out the steampunk watch.

Cory Doctorow just keeps getting better. His newest novel, 'Little Brother', is to my mind easily his best. It's smart and entertaining on two usually mutually exclusive levels. As a ripping yarn, a tale of exciting adventure, Cory keeps the plot popping and the action moving, but manages to do so while having all the characters make what they at first think, at least, are smart decisions. The plot is full of truth and consequences for all involved.

Who's watching you?
But this is science fiction, albeit present-focused science fiction, without really any speculation concerning technological development. And as a science fiction writer, Cory embarks on a number of discursive, polemic info-dumps that are every bit as entertaining as they are smart. You'll really look forward to those moments when Marcus goes off on a rant about l'esprit d'escalier or the paradox of the first positive. What all this adds up is that 'Little Brother' is a book of all good parts. You turn that page, youre going to have a good time.

The same is true of any conversation with Doctorow. I talked to him at KQED about 'Little Brother', The War on Terror, his writing techniques and much more. You can hear that conversation here. I've bookended the interview with readings from 'Little Brother', so hang around after the interview ends to head Doctorow read again. You can also look over at the Audio Index and find quite a few other conversations with Doctorow through the years. Interestingly enough, this was our first visit to a full-blown, sit-down studio, KQED in an interview engineered by KQED's Howard Gelman. That means pristine audio, and everyone totally at ease, and free to speak; for the moment. That freedom of speech is precious, and requires vigilance.


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